“Pure Craft” Is a Lie (Part 1)


This is the first post in this series, “‘Pure Craft’ Is a Lie” continuing in Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.


Some alternate titles for this post:

The MFA Story

Craft as Colonization

Craft vs POC

Why Writers of Color Don’t Write Pure Craft Essays

A Lot of Craft, A Lot of Ideas

* * *

Just before the beginning of this semester, writer (and friend) Christine Hyung-Oak Lee was asking for craft essays by women and writers of color that she could teach in a graduate creative writing course. She was having trouble finding what she wanted. We started tweeting back and forth about why that might be. One of the things Christine wanted to know was why there weren’t more “just craft” or “pure craft” essays by writers of color, why writers of color often wrote about race in their craft essays, instead.

I’ve written in a few places about race in craft, once about a kind of moral craft and once about inciting incidents in American novels and the difference between my adoption as a story and the way novel structure works in a (some) conventional American literary novel. Both of those essays, though, were really about how craft is cultural, how writers need to consider how (race and) culture shapes and is inseparable from craft.

I’m thinking about this a lot in terms of how we teach creative writing. Often what we are doing is teaching a kind of cultural norm. This is because we base “craft” off of what affects a literary, American reader. But that reader has already grown up with a world in which meaning is constructed in a certain way. This is already starting to get too abstract, so think of it this way: I teach my students that it can be to their advantage to write “say” and “ask” instead of other dialogue tags. This something many creative writers teach. I give my class a reason why they should do this, and what I say is that it is because these dialogue tags are effectively “invisible” to readers, that it takes the focus off the tag and puts it on who is talking. That’s the general purpose of dialogue tags, most of the time, to indicate to the reader who is talking. I tell my students that if the purpose becomes how the character is talking, instead, such as shouting or whispering, then those dialogue tags (“she shouted” or “they whispered”) then become useful for the way they are not “invisible.” We want the reader to register that the person is shouting or whispering. When we write “say” or “ask” we aren’t trying to get the reader to register that the person is saying or asking.

I believe this is true and good advice. But I also know that it is cultural. The reason why we see “say” or “ask” as invisible isn’t because they’re actually invisible, of course, and isn’t completely because of the nature of the words–“queried” or “commented” arguably don’t add anything more than “asked” or “said” without a cultural context–but because we read other books where authors use “say” or “ask.” Another way to say this is that we read the words “say” and “ask” A LOT. But if everyone started using “queried,” then we would start to see “queried” as invisible. That’s what I mean by culture. The culture is what makes using “say” or “ask” a good craft move. It’s teaching the writer cultural rules, or how to use culture to her advantage.

This works if the writer is within the culture and writing to someone within the culture. Stay with me. An example would be someone writing “ask” in a culture where “queried” was the invisible term. Then “ask” would draw attention to itself. Or if the reader had never read a book before–she might question why the author always uses “ask,” instead of “spicing it up” with other synonyms–something many of us heard as kids. I’ve had the experience of assigning Hemingway to ESL readers and having them ask exactly that–why the hell does Hemingway keep using the same dialogue tags over and over.

I’ve used this example because it’s a simple one, but the same can be said about how we characterize someone, how a plot of causation is enjoyable to us, how a story where a character changes or fails to change affects us. Maybe not everything is cultural–though poststructuralists would probably argue that everything is–but certainly so damn much of it is.

Now imagine the writer who comes from the culture of “queried” enters our “ask” culture’s creative writing workshop. See the dilemma? I sometimes feel like the “craft” I’m talking about is not so far from colonization. (I know that term is going to throw some people off, and I try to combat and acknowledge this norming in many ways, but still.)

In Part 2 we’ll pick up with the question: What’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t people “know the rules before they can break them”?

In Part 3 I’ll return to the issue of race and craft, and why the writers of color don’t write “just craft” essays.

In Part 4 (if there is one) I’ll think about what can be done to combat all of this. I’m not sure. As always, write to me if you have comments or want to contribute something to this teaching creative writing series: m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].

Photo: Flickr/Global Justice Now

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